Changying: Tomb-Sweeping Day
The quiet rumble of the motorcycle faded into silence as Changying came to a stop. The road up the mountain had been long and winding - she hadn’t been able to afford a more accessible spot, but there was something to be said for the view. The columbarium stretched across most of the terraced hillside, endless rows of urns set in concrete shelving units. This entire area had been a cemetery once, antique, weathered tombstones as far as the eye could see, but anyone close enough to those dead were long-since buried themselves, and without fees coming in most of those old stones had been demolished to expand the outdoor columbarium in an effort to meet the ever-unfulfilled demand for graves. Only a few still stood in places, either in the name of historical preservation, or the result of wealthy eccentrics clinging to family history centuries old so strongly that they still pay the ever-mounting fees meant to drive them out and make room for more shelves.
Even a spot here was considered old-fashioned these days. Most people opted for a water burial - it is the cheaper option, after all. And those that could afford a spot in a columbarium often preferred indoor sites. Changying did not. The concrete hillside offered privacy a cramped building did not, and the blowing wind was a welcome sensation. As was the view of the cityscape stretching out, steel and glass spires looming taller than the hill the columbarium sat on. It felt like a grave should. Maybe that was a stupid thought, but it was one she couldn’t shake. Somber. Lonely.
Not that she was alone. Not this year. Yan Sun stepped off the bike first, arms releasing their grip on Changying’s waist. It seemed like she was starting to get used to riding with her, but the mountain roads had still made her hold on tight. On another day she probably would’ve teased her a little about it, but today her mind was preoccupied. Her gaze lingered on the view for a moment before dismounting. It was a gray, cloudy, morning with occasional droplets in the air, and it was early enough to be chilly despite the calm weather. Thankfully no storm this year. She grabbed her bag from the storage compartment and turned towards Yan Sun, suddenly feeling just as awkward as she had after that first kiss, thinking she’d screwed up. She was looking back at her, the faintest frown on her face, the strands of black hair too long to be held in place by her beanie blowing a little in the wind. She had a hoodie on to shield from the chill.
“Uh… thanks again. For-... for coming.” she managed to spit out, garnering a soft look from Yan Sun, who stepped closer and reached out to give her hand a squeeze.
“Of course I was going to come. We never go this early anyway. I’ll have plenty of time.” she replied, looking around at the rows of shelves, and then to the holographic 3D display of the area that sat near one end of the parking lot. “Do… we need-”
Changying shook her head, and started to lead the way down the concrete walkway. “I know the way.” she assured, retracing her steps from past years in her head. It wasn’t easy to find one’s way with identical structures all around, but consulting the map felt like a defeat. Like saying this wasn’t important enough to remember for herself.
Soon enough she stopped by a set of shelves, eyes scanning the glowing nameplates as she walked down the wall of urns. Had she misremembered? Was it the wrong one? Guilt was starting to well up when she suddenly spotted two familiar names. Bottom shelf. Not the nicest spot, maybe, but it was the one she had been able to afford.
Seeing the names was enough to make her stiffen as she stopped in front of the site, looking down at the holographic display. Yan Sun must have noticed her unease, a comforting hand finding its way beneath her leather jacket, stroking her back gently. A brief glance her way revealed a soft frown, brown eyes studying her. She quickly turned her attention back to the shelf, trying not to feel self-conscious as she sat down, opening up the bag she brought.
“Hi mom. Hi dad.” she said quietly, swallowing against the lump in her throat as she pulled out a rag and a bottle of water. The bottom-shelf position and outdoor location meant that there was actually some cleaning to be done. In a way, she liked that. “This-... this is my girlfriend. Yan Sun.”
The introduction came with a look at the girl next to her, who was joining her in sitting down on the concrete floor. She still looked a little embarrassed by the title, but she flashed a small smile and reached over to give her hand another squeeze, remaining respectfully silent. Changying reached out to clean the grime off the urn, the holographic names flickering out of existence briefly as they’re blocked by the rag. “I know. It’s a little weird for me too, but you guys would have liked her. Especially you, dad.”
She worked in silence for a while, before putting the cleaning supplies away and taking out a small bouquet of flowers, carefully fitting it in the slot mounted on the front of the box. “I haven’t-... I haven’t forgotten about you. I hope you know that. I am going to find out what really happened, and make sure they’re held responsible. I will.”
Her hand closed into a fist as she pulled it back, and she could feel herself trembling a little. A soft touch to her shoulder and a worried look from Yan Sun made her take a deep breath, steadying herself.
“I’m-... I’m good.” she assured, her words at odds with the tears threatening to slip out. She cleared her throat, flashing a half-hearted smile and reaching up to rub at her eyes.
“I’m good.” she repeated, more to herself than to Yan Sun, drawing another long breath and staring at the names in front of her for a moment before turning her attention to the girl next to her. “I, uh… I thought we could…”
She reached into her bag, taking out a handful of chocolate bars and passing one to Yan Sun before setting two down in front of the urn, the colorful wrapping paper standing out against the gray concrete and metal. She kept the last one for herself, shooting a glance towards the girl next to her in time to catch the puzzled grimace on her face. It wasn’t hard to tell she was holding back from speaking up. Changying couldn't help but smile a little at the sight. “It’s okay, you can say it.”
“...cheese-filled chocolate?” Yan Sun said immediately, looking up from reading the label with a questioning raise of her eyebrow.
Changying initial response was just as shrug and a quiet chuckle, the memories summoned bringing a fond smile to her lips despite everything. “Yeah… they both loved it. Used to be tradition we’d have some whenever we were celebrating something. I guess it had… something to do with how they met? Something like that.”
She wished she’d paid more attention to her father’s stupid stories. After her mother had died, he’d stopped telling them. There’d only been pain there. She sucked in her lips, gaze distant, staring past the glow of the holographics. She wasn't sure how long she sat in silence before Yan Sun’s hand brushed against her knee, bringing her back to the present along with the careful voice asking: “Did… you want to say something before-...?”
“Uh… no. I’ve… said enough, I think.” Changying confirmed her response with a nod, clearing her throat a little before unwrapping her chocolate bar, taking a bite before looking Yan Sun’s way again. She found her struggling valiantly not to let her disgust show on her face as she chewed - the sight was enough to draw a sudden laugh from Changying, which of course made Yan Sun laugh in turn, bringing up a hand to keep from spitting out the chocolate in the process. She looked more than a little flustered by what hardly passed for appropriate behavior at a grave, but Changying just let out another quiet, warm chuckle at her reaction. She could feel a little bit of the weight in her chest lifting, and she took another bite of her own chocolate before wrapping an arm around Yan Sun, pulling her in for a one-armed hug with a whispered: “Thank you.”
Hotaru: Last Words
“No. Out of the question.” Hotaru didn’t bother looking up from her soldering as she answered her brother. A small wisp of smoke danced into the air as she pressed the iron back against the solder.
“What? But Changying already told me I could go!” Hiro exclaimed. She could see him gesturing frustratedly in the corner of her eye.
“And I’m telling you you can’t.” she snapped, struggling to divide her focus between the conversation and her work. It wasn’t particularly important, just a potential hardware update for their guard dog. Mostly she just wasn’t in the mood for this argument.
“You’re not in charge of me!” Those words were enough to make her look up in surprise, setting her tools down and swiveling her chair to face her little brother. He was standing near the doorway, arms thrown up in anger, a scowl on his face.
“Hiro…” she tried, only to be cut off.
“No! I’m sick of you telling me what to do! I’m not a kid anymore, I can make my own decisions!” he half-yelled, probably loud enough for the others to hear.
“I’ve been ‘telling you what to do’ to keep you safe! I’ve always kept you safe.” she responded, her own anger muted a little by sheer surprise.
“Maybe I don’t want to be safe anymore! I want to help the team! We need everyone since Blue-”
She was out of her chair in a flash, eyes blazing orange as she poked a hard finger at his chest. “You want to know what’s happened since Blue left? Everything is way more dangerous. We have no idea how long the cloak is going to hold up, and if they catch any of us? Tie us to what happened at the mansion? We’re dead. It’s serious now, little brother.”
Hiro staggered a little, but he wasn’t backing down, his glare just growing sharper. “It’s always been serious! You’re the one that always said we’d make them pay. You’re just being a coward!”
“Because I don’t want to lose-”
“You sound like dad, you know that, right? You’re just a fucking coward and you don’t even want to admit it.” The words were enough to stun Hotaru, her anger losing steam as she took a step back and swallowed, staring at her brother in disbelief. She opened her mouth to speak, before shaking her head and pushing past Hiro with a muttered “Do whatever you want…”
She took long strides towards the stairs as the fire faded from her eyes, ignoring the prying looks from the others sitting around in the common room. Soon enough she was up the ladder too, retreating back towards her bedroom.
She sank into her bed as soon as she was in. It took up most of the small room. The cramped space wasn’t really meant for anything more than sleeping. Most spaces in their little hideout were shared. She was used to that. Her and Hiro had been sharing living spaces with others ever since they ran away. It was comforting in its familiarity, in a way. But sometimes she needed privacy. Like now. She crawled further into bed, pulling her legs in close and leaning back against the wall as she turned her gaze to the window, watching the setting sun filter through the half-closed blinds, bathing the room in stripes of angry orange like a warship in battle. She raised a hand, studying the cracked pattern of the glowing orange lines that covered it. The ring around the fabricator in her palm looked like it should be scorching hot to the touch, the air distorting around it.
All a well-crafted illusion, of course. Meant to bolster her courage. Make her feel powerful by looking the part. Maybe Hiro was right about that. Maybe she was a coward. But that had never stopped her from doing the right thing. She just didn’t want to lose him. All they’d had for so long had been each other. And it had been her job to keep him safe. She’s the reason he was here in the first place, after all. He could’ve been living comfortably, safely, couldn’t he?
The growing wetness in her eyes was blurring her vision, and she closed her eyes, a couple of tears slipping out as she let her head rest against the wall, arms hugging her legs close now. Everything had gotten so complicated. It felt like they were one mistake away from things falling apart. She wasn’t sure she trusted Changying’s decision-making anymore. Not since the mansion. And without Blue…
The whoosh of the door opening caught her entirely off-guard, and she levelled a teary-eyed death glare against the figure in the doorway, blinking to clear her vision. “Get out.”
“Woah, hey! Just checking in. No need to fry me.” Argent was looking back at her, silver arms raised in faux surrender. “I’m fireproof anyway.”
Hotaru very much doubted that. Most of their torso was still organic. Still, she let the glow fade from her implants, releasing her legs and letting them extend as she wiped at her tears. “What do you want?”
“Oh, you know, call me weird, but I guess seeing my irritable sometimes-girlfriend stomping by like she was going to torch the place made me worried. Also I heard you and Hiro yelling.” they replied with a shrug and a small smirk, stepping into the room and taking a seat on the edge of the bed. Their long, silver hair shimmered in the sunlight, spilling over their shoulders with unnatural smoothness.
“I’m not your girlfriend.” Hotaru muttered in response, shooting them an unamused look after lowering her hand.
Argent shrugged and smiled. “I said sometimes.”
Hotaru just sighed and turned her attention back to the window as Argent scooted further into the bed, sitting back against the wall next to her. “Guess you heard what we were arguing about…”
Argent nodded next to her, letting out a quiet: “Yup…”
“I’m just trying to keep him safe.” she said, unable to suppress the urge to defend herself even though no accusation had been made. They nodded again. “I know… you always have been. But… you have to let him make his own choices, you know? It’s not fair to expect him to hide away here while you go out on runs.”
Hotaru levelled a half-hearted glare on Argent, but it was hard to muster up any real heat when faced with the concerned look in their cybernetic eyes. “Just… shut up.”
“I can do that.” they replied, a small smirk crossing their lips as they remained right where they were, looking at her. Hotaru let out an annoyed grunt, looking away for a moment, but she quickly realized there was no pretending. Her attention returned to Argent as she pushed off from the wall, swinging a leg over to straddle them and leaning in for a kiss without a word.
Argent let out a slightly surprised noise, but quickly got with the program, synthetic hands coming to rest on the small of her back as the kiss deepened. A little annoyed by how unfazed they were, Hotaru broke the kiss to shoot them another glare. “This doesn’t mean anything.”
“Sure.” Argent replied through an amused grin, which only made her more annoyed. “Want me to get the toolbhmfn…”
She shut them up with another kiss, the flood of sensation that accompanied roaming hands and locked lips a welcome distraction from her worries. Time to forget about it all, if just for a moment.
“I… won’t be coming home for Christmas this year, mum.” Spek cringed a little while saying the words, bracing himself for her reaction. He was met with a confused look from the middle-aged woman on the other end of the vid call.
“What are you talking about, sweetheart? You always come home for the holidays.” she said, eyebrows furrowing as she stared at him in search of answers. He did his best not to dwell on the glimpses of his childhood home in the background, lest homesickness take root.
“I-... I know, mum, but things are right hectic at work right now and they really need me here.” he explained apologetically, gaze bouncing away from the screen. He was never much good at lying, but it’s easier to hide that from behind a screen. Besides, it wasn’t exactly a lie. Depended on your definition of work, he supposed.
“Well, then you tell them that you have a right to spend Christmas with your family. You’ve booked time off, haven’t you?” She sounded determined now, angry on his behalf. It stung how much she cared. Spek knew telling her the truth just wasn’t an option. It wasn’t safe for her, and he doubted she would understand.
“It’s… not that simple, mum. Uhm… one of the bosses quit unexpectedly a while back and things have been a bit of a mess since. They reckon the company might go under if we don’t get things sorted. They really do need me.” he said with a quiet sigh, adapting the truth best he could.
His mother’s expression softened a bit, but she still looked reluctant to accept this. “Lincoln… we haven’t seen you all year. Maddie’s been looking forward to it. We all have. I don’t know how many more Christmases your grandfather has in him, you know.”
Spek closed his eyes, drawing in a long breath. “I know, mum. I’ll… try and make a trip home as soon as I can. It just won’t be right now.”
“...alright, son. You do what you think is best. Just… take care of yourself over there. I don’t like having you so far away.” she said, seeming resigned that he’d already made his choice.
“It’s not that far, mum. I’m still on Earth.” he replied with a sigh, looking back at the screen.
His mother shook her head, smiling a little. “To some of us that’s still plenty far, you know.”
“I know. It does mean the presents I mailed should arrive in time, though.” he said with a small smile. “Tell Maddie I’m sorry. I’ll give grandpa a call.”
“Of course, sweetheart. I love you.” He looked away again at the words, doing his best to keep from frowning.
“I… love you too, mum. I’m sending a bit of extra money this month since I won’t be around to help with the shopping.” he said, hanging up before she could protest.
Spek let out a sigh as he closed the laptop and looked around the room. He used the empty apartment for his calls. The common room was too messy, and had too much risk of interruption. He would rather not explain why there were other people in his ‘apartment’. The ‘college dorm’ excuse didn’t really work anymore since he was supposed to be graduated now. It had taken a while to set up an untraceable connection that he felt confident enough in to call home right from the den, but it had been important to him.
He picked up the laptop and got out of the chair, heading through the door back to the main room. Most of the others were out right now, that’s why he had decided to make the call. Less risk of a yelling match between Changying and Hotaru interrupting him. The only person in the common space right now was Ethan, of all people. The new guy.
Spek wasn’t sure what to think about him yet. He knew for a fact half the others didn’t trust him, but he had Changying’s full trust, so here he was. He was standing near one of the windows, taking a long swig from a bottle of water. It looked like he’d come straight from the makeshift gym he’d set up in one of the side rooms, judging by his tanktop and sweatpants combo, and the sheen of sweat on his skin.
Ethan turned as Spek made his way over to his desk to put away the laptop. “What were you doing?”
“Huh? Oh. I… was calling my mum.” he replied, the admission carrying a hint of discomfort. They hadn’t exactly spoken a whole lot yet. Ethan seemed surprised by the answer, eyebrows rising a little as he stepped away from the window, idly shifting the water bottle from one hand to the other. “Huh… was starting to think everyone here was either an orphan or a runaway.”
Spek wasn’t quite sure how to react, but he settled for an uncomfortable snort as he sat down in his chair, swiveling it around to check his feed. He figured he might as well take a crack at making conversation, though. “No. My family might be on another continent, but… I’m still in touch. Uh… what about you?”
Ethan made a sound somewhere in-between a sigh and a hum as he moved over to take a seat on a nearby crate. He used his tanktop to wipe at his forehead before giving his response, the words accompanied by a shrug and a sad smile. “My parents are… big patriots. They weren’t thrilled when I left the force. I doubt they’d have much good to say about what I’m doing now.”
Spek frowned slightly, pausing his typing and shooting a glance Ethan’s way. “Uh… I’m-.... I’m sorry.”
“Eh, don’t be. It was my choice to leave. And frankly, I’m liking this a whole lot more.” he said with a small smirk. Spek nodded a little awkwardly, turning his attention back to the array of screens in front of him, only to be addressed again. “What are you working on? Scrambler?”
“No, I’m just checking my feed for updates.” Spek replied without taking his gaze off the text scrolling by. “I’d like to get some work in while the others are out though, if I could have some room to focus.”
Ethan didn’t seem offended, just letting out a quiet snort and smiling as he lifted his hands a little. “Say no more. I’ll be upstairs.”
With that, he stood up and headed off, leaving Spek to work in private. It wasn’t that he had anything against the guy, he just wasn’t really a people person, and there was important work to be done. Without Blue’s backdoors he had his work cut out for him if they were going to pull this off.